Cairo demonstrations hit standstill as Mubarak offers more concessions

Anti-government protesters pray at sunset in Cairo's Tahrir Square on the 14th day of demonstrations. President Hosni Mubarak seemed to be trying to split the opposition by compromising on all but the demonstrators' core demand - that he leave office.
Anti-government protesters pray at sunset in Cairo's Tahrir Square on the 14th day of demonstrations. President Hosni Mubarak seemed to be trying to split the opposition by compromising on all but the demonstrators' core demand - that he leave office. (Mohammed Abed)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

CAIRO - The power struggle between Egypt's would-be revolutionaries and its defiant ruler wobbled to a standstill Monday as both sides girded for a prolonged test of wills that could shape the political future of the Arab world.

President Hosni Mubarak sought to defuse a mass revolt against his 30-year reign by offering further concessions to an opposition movement that continued to jam Cairo's central Tahrir Square with tens of thousands of protesters. Reports of arrests and clashes with security forces, meanwhile, appeared to ebb, and protesters said Mubarak seemed to be trying to split the opposition by compromising on all but their core demand - that he leave office.

Responding to frustration with an inequitable economy that has left most of Egypt's 80 million people impoverished, Mubarak's government announced a 15 percent pay raise for public employees and pensioners, about 6 million people. It also pledged a judicial investigation into allegedly corrupt dealings by three former ministers and a senior ruling-party official.

Egypt's feared security police also released more of the estimated 1,500 activists seized during two weeks of protests in Cairo and other cities. Among those freed was Wael Ghonim, Google's marketing manager for the Middle East and North Africa and a key organizer of the demonstrations. He had disappeared 10 days earlier and had been held incommunicado. Google confirmed his release in a statement, calling it "a huge relief."

Hafez Abou Seada, director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, said about 500 people who were arrested after the protests began Jan. 25 remain unaccounted for. "It is very illogical to call for dialogue with the youth opposition when the government is still detaining some of their members and leaders," he said.

Peaceful demonstrators on Monday once again jammed Tahrir Square, although their numbers were diminished compared with the swarms that blanketed the capital last week. Many accused Mubarak of trying to divide and conquer the loosely organized opposition. They acknowledged that the pressure was on them to reverse a perceived loss of momentum.

"This is an attempt to bribe us and to make people leave the square," said Wael Moawad, a 30-year-old information technology specialist who ignored a curfew Monday evening to join the crowd. Organizers said larger-scale protests are planned for Tuesday and Friday.

There was no extension of talks held Sunday between representatives from most of the opposition factions and Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's newly chosen vice president. Although the government portrayed the negotiations as a promising breakthrough that could lead to extensive constitutional reforms, others involved said the opposition was unlikely to accept the concessions.

"We have yet to hear a package that is agreeable," said Amr Hamzawy, one of a group of about 50 Egyptian "wise men" - intellectuals and business leaders - who have tried to mediate talks between the government and the mostly youthful demonstrators.

Hamzawy, the research director for the Carnegie Middle East Center, said his group would insist that Mubarak agree to dissolve parliament and restructure the ruling party, as well as lift the state of emergency he imposed upon taking power in 1981. Still, he said it was vital to keep talking.

"They have made a conscious attempt to divide us and separate the different groups," he said. "But this is not the end of the dialogue. The negotiations need to continue."

Many opposition groups have insisted that they will not call off the protests until Mubarak steps down. But they appeared to lose much of their leverage on that count Sunday by agreeing to hold talks anyway with Suleiman, Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief.


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